Grand Junction Audubon Society birders

Follow local birders in pursuit of their life lists. For more visit audubongv.org.

Page 6 of 11


EVEN ED ABBEY COULD IDENTIFY A WAXWING

By Nic.Korte
Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Edward Abbey famously wrote that the only birds he could identify were pigeons, buzzards, and fried chicken. I suspect, however, he could identify Cedar Waxwings. According to one source, Cedar Waxwings are a shiny mixture of “brown, gray, and lemon-yellow, accented with a subdued crest, rakish black mask, and brilliant-red wax droplets on the wing feathers.

Most winters, our backyard has flocks of cedar waxwings feeding on the red berries of our two Hawthorn trees. Their feeding habits are interesting. One of our Hawthorns is ~25 ft. tall and the other half that height. The waxwings begin at the top of the tallest tree and strip all the berries until they reach the height of the smaller tree. They also omit the branches that brush against our bedroom window. But, when only those are left, they will strip the smaller tree and finish off the berries outside our window—often within two feet of someone looking from the inside. It is a treat to see such a beautiful bird so close.

      Last week, I counted 68 in the same tree. They flutter like so many butterflies from the fruit trees, to tall trees nearby if something scares them. I also noticed them flying en masse to the roof of our house. I realized there is a shady corner providing melting snow for an easy drink. So, they have a perfect triangle of food, water, and cover—the three things a bird needs to thrive.
      As my photos show, waxwing plumage appears soft and silky. But note the tips to the wing feathers and tail.

     These tips appeared to early observers as sealing wax, hence the common name of waxwing. Cedar waxwings nest nearby in mid-elevation riparian areas. In late spring and early summer, when native fruits are ripening, look for them in wet areas with tall trees at elevations of 6000-8000 feet or so. Their diet is mostly fruit, but later in the summer, I often see them perched on high dead limbs from which they sally into the air to feed on flying insects.
     During courtship, waxwings are known to pass berries back and forth. I vividly recall, as a small boy, seeing several sitting on a wire passing a berry from one to the next. Seeing such beautiful and apparently polite behavior was an early inspiration for my interest in birds.


    My photos are misleading because Cedar Waxwings are tiny—as I’m sadly reminded most years as one or more crash into one of our windows trying to escape a marauding hawk. They are only 7 inches long. Their crest, relatively long tail, and pointed wings give the appearance of a larger and more robust bird. They actually weigh less than the common sparrows and finches.
    A characteristic of waxwings is their flocking and wandering behavior. Frequently, I will be watching 20 or more in my tree and suddenly, they are gone—spooked by a loud sound, a gust of wind, or maybe a hawk who would dine on them. The flocks wander erratically depending, apparently, on where they happen to find food, and, perhaps, on the weather. Such behavior is termed "irruptive," a fancy way of saying, "now you see them, now you don't."   This is typified by what I see in my yard. Perhaps half the time, they find my trees early and strip every berry by mid-December. One year in four, they show up late, as this year—and the other year in four, I don’t see them at all. So, watch for a lot of activity in any berry-laded bushes still remaining in the valley.  You may see one of North America's most beautiful birds.
To keep up with the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to audubongv@gmail.com
 

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LET’S GO TO TUMACANBAC!

By Nic.Korte
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sorry, this isn’t an invitation to travel somewhere exotic and warm. It’s an invitation to take a February weekend day and drive or ride “to Mack and back” searching for raptors. The combination of cold and winter’s length usually combine to give the Grand Valley its highest population of birds-of-prey in mid-to-late February.
Tumacanbac has long been Grand Valley Audubon’s most popular field trip so it is run on four days to keep groups relatively small. Information for signing up is at the bottom of this post.


The first Tumacanbac trip occurred in the 1980’s. Over the years 19 species of birds-of-prey have been seen. (Photo by Jackson Trappett) 

These include falcons, owls, eagles, and hawks such as this red-tailed hawk.

Once, participants witnessed a “kill.” A prairie falcon was being viewed when it suddenly dove, killed, and devoured a starling. We never know what we’ll find, but it is always interesting.

(Prairie falcon photo by Jackson Trappett)  

You don’t need fancy optics to enjoy this trip. There will be multiple scopes available and the birds often sit still for long periods. There are also loaner binoculars if you like. Here are the dates and trip leaders. Please register with a trip leader to keep numbers reasonable and so participants can be spread out among the trips if necessary.  Phone numbers and trip leaders are as follows. You can also send an email to audubongv@gmail.com to register for the trip of your choice. 
    February 15th Peter Robinson 250-0409
    February 16th Nic Korte 242 3779
    February 23rd Mike Henwood 720 840 5070 
    February 24th Bob Moston 242 9443 
Meet at BLM OFFICE at H Road and Horizon Drive at 9AM. Return about 3PM. Bring lunch, water, snack and binoculars. This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at www.audubongv.webs.com and “like” us on Facebook.
 

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WHAT COMES TO MIND WHEN YOU HEAR SOMEONE YELL, “GREAT TITS!”?

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, January 16, 2014

Having searched for birds in Europe, my second thought, at least, is that my birding partner has just spied a pair of common European songbirds. My European field guide says great tits are a “frequent visitor to bird tables and seed-dispensers…at times, plain audacious, may take seed from an outstretched hand.” Now we are talking! “Audacious, great tits!”

Sure, I thought up this slightly salacious title to grab your interest, but there are some important points.

Many bird names have little to do with describing the bird. Second, many of our birds’ names have an Old-World origin. One of the best examples is the American Robin. Most of us can quickly picture a robin in our mind, but go to Europe and the picture is different. The European Robin is small and brownish with a rusty-red bib. It isn't even in the same family as the American Robin.  Unfortunately, our robin reminded some early settlers of the European Robin and the misnomer soon followed. Our robin is in a family known as thrushes. A tropical close-cousin that sneaks into South Texas is called a clay-colored thrush—which is the same size and shape as our robin and is the color of a brown clay. I prefer that sort of name because it tells me a lot about the bird, in this case, color and family.

Ok, that was boring. Let’s get back to tits. My bird book of Europe lists twelve kinds including blue ones. Picture those!

One I’ve missed is the Eurasian Penduline Tit. I need to get back over there and search for that one. But, the burning question remains. Do we have tits in the US? Not exactly, although we have some closely related birds with similar names. A favorite of many wildlife watchers is the Common Bushtit.

Although I took this picture in chaparral in California, these nondescript little guys are often encountered in noisy flocks in the Grand Valley in the winter and in the PJs and aspens—often near streams—throughout the year. They often permit a very close approach as they call back and forth. This bird is actually quite common but is often overlooked because it has so few field marks. If you encounter a flock of squeaking LGBs (little gray birds) when you are out walking the river trail, it is probably these guys. Take some time with them. They often permit a very close approach.

A stranger name is the titmouse. There are five North American species and, yes, the plural is titmice. I can’t imagine what a non-birder would conjure up in their minds if they saw that word out-of-context. What the heck are titmice? Mice that live in… Never mind!

Our local representative is the Juniper Titmouse. This bird is also mostly gray, but local photographer Jackson Trappett’s photo shows it has a handsome crest. Also, as the name suggests, it is an inhabitant of our pinyon-juniper (P-J) forests.



During the summer, juniper titmice eat mostly insects, but they eat a lot of seeds in the winter. If you live near the Colorado National Monument, you may find them at your bird feeder. Common bushtits and juniper titmice are well-adapted to toughing out our cold winters and hot summers.  Indeed, we always find a few dozen on our Christmas counts—both in the Grand Valley and on the slopes of Grand Mesa. So, when you are out taking a walk and you see some little gray birds, don’t just dismiss them as LBGs. Enjoy a close look at these adaptable and distinctive year-around residents of the Grand Valley.

To keep up with the activities (such as raptor-viewing field trips February 15/16 and 22/23) of Grand Valley Audubon Society, check out our webpage at www.audubongv.webs.com and “like” us on Facebook. Please send any questions to audubongv@gmail.com. Don't forget the GVAS monthly program: 7PM 3rd Monday of the month, at 1st Presbyterian Church, corner of Cortland and 27 1/2 road. 
 

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CROSS-PURPOSES ON GRAND MESA (AND THE GALAPAGOS)!

By Nic.Korte
Sunday, January 5, 2014

Look at this photo. Is there something wrong with this bird’s beak?

   Nope. This bird is a red crossbill. Yep, it is a female. As with many species, the females are dull-colored so they can blend in with the vegetation during feeding and nesting. The males are brick-red. These are small birds, and typically rather common on Grand Mesa—especially some winters. (On our January 1, annual Grand Mesa Christmas Count, birders counted 68!)
   Why the funny bill? Well, it so happens these bills are designed to crack open pine cones—this species’ principal food. At other times of the year, they may eat some buds and insects.
   Crossbills, with a diet so dependent on conifers live at high elevations or high latitudes. What do they have in common with the Galapagos? The Galapagos are famous because much of what Charles Darwin observed there led to his Theory of Evolution. That’s why the finches that live on the various islands are called “Darwin’s Finches.” There are now 15 varieties. But, they look much the same. The principal difference is the size, shape and strength of the bills. The birds have separated themselves by eating various varieties of seeds. Painstaking work over many decades by researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant have shown how these birds have split into such specific niches. (Two wonderful books on this subject are: The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathon Weiner {winner of the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction} and How and Why Species Multiply by the Grants. The former is an entertaining “read” for the lay-person, while the latter is for biologists and bird-geeks.}
    The red crossbill has not had as much attention as Darwin’s Finches. The attention that has been paid, however, has shown that up to 8 species may be present because of differences in the “size, shape and strength” of the bills. The "species" have separated by living in different mountain ranges or "islands in the sky."  Ornithologists agree that there are more than one distinct species, but how many is being debated.
   Crossbills have adapted to remove seeds from cones. They start at the bottom of a cone and spiral upward, prying open each scale and removing the seeds with their tongues. The bills can cross in either direction, and the direction of the cross dictates the direction that the bird spirals up the cone. Each crossbill type has a distinct cone as a favorite food and a distinct flight call.
    The breeding cycle of Red Crossbills is more closely tied to food availability than it is to season. They can breed at almost any time of year including mid-winter if there is an abundant source of seeds. They are monogamous, and pairs form within flocks. The parents continue to feed the young for about a month after they hatch. The bills of young birds are not crossed at hatching, but cross as they grow. By 45 days they are crossed enough for the young to extract seeds from cones.
   

Enough details! Do you want to see some crossbills?

    A good way would be to participate in the Grand Valley Audubon Society annual x-country ski field trip to be held Sunday January 12th. Leaders are Lee Stigen and Cecelia Barr. Call 241-3905 or email audubonvg@gmail.com for more information. Meet at 9AM at the Palisade High School Parking Lot. Everyone is invited. Cost is $5/person except for students who are free.
     The skiing will be easy. All you need to bring is binoculars, lunch, water, sunscreen and appropriate gear.


Other birds you may see include three-toed woodpecker, gray jay, red-breasted nuthatch and more.


Keep up with the activities of Grand Valley Audubon Society by checking our website (audubongv.webs.com), and by following us on Facebook. Email audubongv@gmail.com with any questions or comments.
 

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FIFTY-TWO!

By Nic.Korte
Thursday, December 26, 2013

    In the previous blog, I said I wanted sixty-five Western Screech-owls for Christmas. That is, I was hoping we could count sixty-five during the annual Grand Junction Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on December 15. What we got was 52. Sounds well off the mark, but, let’s explore a bit more about the Grand Junction CBC.
    This was the 114th CBC held in the US. The first Grand Junction count was held in 1953. CBCs were started as a means of learning what birds were out there, how their populations were changing, and as a counterweight to annual Christmas-time hunts which, in some cases, had reputations as wintertime slaughter.
    Christmas counts are based on counting all of the birds within the same ten mile circle, year-after-year. The Grand Junction count is centered at H and 24 roads.

    Back to Screech-owls: Long-time Grand Junction birder, the late Rich Levad, essentially discovered the Western-screech owl in the Grand Junction area by deciding, “There must be more of them.” Rich set out to find them by rising very early morning after morning and going out calling for them. From that humble beginning, when previously only 2 or 3 Western Screech-owls were reported, our counts have risen and risen. We found so many that Rich began referring to the Western Screech-owl (or WESO in birder’s code), as the Grand Valley’s “signature bird.” This was back in the mid-1980s. Soon we had a program for installing nest boxes for WESOs at schools, cemeteries, golf courses and private yards. We had to do this because the valley’s growth was causing too much loss of the old cottonwoods that have the cavities WESOs need for nesting. We now have more than 100 WESO nest boxes in our count circle.


     More numbers perspective: Owls are not like house finches or mourning doves in terms of numbers. Typically, we count approximately a thousand each of the latter two species during our CBC. A good count of WESOs, on the other hand, was typically in the 30s with our highest counts being in the 40s. Still, this was enough to make us #1 in WESOs—at least sometimes. We all have to be number one in something, don’t we?


    Human population growth affects WESO numbers, but we have another problem. At least half of our count area is in the desert or in pinyon-juniper areas where no WESOs live. In contrast, there are count circles in California that are entirely WESO habitat. How do we beat them? Two reasons! First, we have a uniquely high population here. Grand Junction regularly counts more WESOs than the rest of Colorado and the States of Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming combined. We almost beat all of Arizona as well—with no count circles in any of those states approaching us. We don’t know what is special about Grand Junction versus the Glenwood Springs or Montrose areas. We can only speculate. Perhaps, our slightly-lower elevation and typically fewer days of snow cover are “just right.”


    The other reason we count a lot of WESOs is effort. On the Sunday morning of count day, if you had been out early—especially in the Fruita area where there is a lot of line-of-sight; you would have seen cars moving around in the pre-dawn and stopping every so often. Inside, were bundled up birders. Each had a list of 10 or so “stops.” At each one, they would get out, play the call (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCHdsdx2fpg), and listen and record what happened. Most stops were unproductive where the only thing noticed was the numbing fingers. (Gloved hands don’t work so well fumbling with an iPod or iPhone to play the call.) But, every now and then, there would be the soft answer. Notice how the call is so different from the loud slow “hoots” that most people associate with owls. The “hoots” are from Great-horned owls—also common in the valley, and much more visible than WESOs.


    Sometimes, if the group was lucky, an answering WESO would fly into overhead branches. Sometimes, the owl would be only a voice in the darkness. Sometimes, one flew in silently. But, all were counted. Seventeen teams participated in this effort, and many groups had more than two participants. That’s right, approximately 50 of your friends and neighbors were out calling and listening—with hope for the dawn and a nice cup of organic coffee (couldn’t resist-- http://www.cafecristina.com/).
As the sun rose, everyone called me with their results. We had 34. How did we get to 52? Well that involves what Rich called “the peeper.”

    We have two, and two more volunteers from Rifle brought two more over. These two teams spent the entire day driving the count circle to look in most of the 100+ owl boxes that were not near areas where owls had been found in the pre-dawn. (We have to be honest to stay #1. No double-counting allowed.)  

    I think 52 was a spectacular number. We have no hard data, but our experience and preliminary research data elsewhere indicates that WESOs do not like to call when the moon is near-full—as it was on count day. This may be because of increased risk of predation. Great-horned owls, for example, will happily dine on WESO. It was also cold. It is difficult to call just a little longer at a spot on such a cold day. So, even though 52 is quite a few less than last year’s 64, there were good reasons, other than a drop in the owl population, why we counted fewer. Time, as always, will tell.
    52 was our third highest count ever—all in the last three years—coinciding with morning routes that now cover all of the valley’s areas—although not every likely WESO location. (We could do more with more volunteers!) The high numbers are also a result of the two camera crews out all day to check all of the boxes. Here’s what 52 means. Last year, 138 count circles reported at least one WESO. That’s one perspective. Now, in all of those 113 years of CBCs, more than 50 WESOs in a count circle has only been reported nine times—three by Grand Junction.


 
  (One we missed!  This owl was in the owl box in my own yard--but on Monday--the day after count day.)

    So, why do we do this? We do it for fun. It is exciting to hear an owl answer or see it fly in from the darkness. But we also do it for science. Here’s more number perspective from the Grand Junction CBC (Keep in mind, there is now more participation/effort than ever before): Lewis Woodpecker in 1995 was 10. This year: zero. Ring-necked pheasant 1999 was 84. This year 1. Why? Probably loss of orchard and agricultural habitat to development. Eurasian Collared Dove in 2004 was zero. This year 593! Whoa! What’s up with that? Yes, this invasive species has now become one of the most common birds in the valley.

    How about White-winged doves—common in Southern Arizona? We found three this year, and have reported them four of the past six years. Before that? Never! Why? We need more data, but perhaps the generally-warmer winters of recent decades are causing some to move north. CBCs have documented evidence for climate change over much of the US. So, even though it is just “citizen science,” the data in aggregate mean something, and provide a snapshot of how our valley and its birdlife are changing.
    Christmas bird counts are now an international effort. Everyone who helps is part of a huge scientific enterprise. You still have one more chance to participate in a CBC in our area. The Grand Mesa CBC is held January 1. Check our website (audubongv.webs.com) for details or send an email to audubongv@gmail.com.
 

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Page 6 of 11




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